Depression in sport
Posted Friday 23 November 2012
‘Bonkers Bruno locked up’ read the typically sensitive Sun headline in response to the news that retired boxer Frank Bruno had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. “What has he got to be depressed about earning £20,000 a week?” were Aston Villa manager John Gregory’s thoughts on his star striker, Stan Collymore. Piers Morgan said of the media’s attitude towards depression in sport “…it’s such an incredible privilege and honour that to actually claim to be depressed because you’re having to stay in a five star hotel while you’re playing cricket for England to me seemed ridiculous.”
Yet in the past few years, an increasing number of professional athletes have spoken up about their experience of mental health problems. Among them are Marcus Trescothick, Tony Adams, Neil Lennon, Vicky Pendleton, Andre Agassi, Vinnie Jones, Ricky Hatton, Freddie Flintoff, Kelly Holmes, the list goes on and on.
As 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives, it should hardly be surprising that sports stars are affected too. Despite this, and as the above quotes suggest; false assumptions, stigma and a lack of understanding have often prevented a healthy level of openness on the matter.
Elite sport is held by many as the absolute antithesis of mental ill health; in their eyes professional sport involves strength, confidence, energy and mental toughness, while mental ill health can be viewed as weakness, self-doubt, fatigue and mental fragility. As a result, people often feel that the two are incompatible.
Firstly though, this assumes that mental health problems are a sign of weakness rather than the result of an often complex interaction between biological, psychological and social mechanisms that can affect anyone at any time. Secondly, it can be easy to forget because of the highly tuned, remarkably consistent performances of athletes, but they are not in fact inhuman machines who are immune to mental health problems!
The particularly worrying thing for me is that when a subculture like professional sport implicitly discourages people from talking about anything that can be interpreted as revealing ‘weakness’, many will suffer in silence. No case demonstrates this more poignantly than the suicide of FC Hannover goalkeeper, Robert Enke, in 2009. Racked with fear that disclosing his condition would impact on his career and family, he maintained secrecy as his depression swelled to the point of no return.
Things are slowly changing for the better, but the example of Andreas Biermann of St Pauli FC in Germany reminds us of the underlying problem: sport is a results industry played at high financial stakes, where a player with depression can too often be viewed as a damaged commodity.
After telling his manager about his struggles with depression, Biermann’s contract was simply allowed to run out and he found no interested alternatives at a level matching his ability. He later said that football players suffering from depression should keep their condition secret if they want to continue their careers.
There are further reasons for sports stars to feel it’s best to keep schtum. Given the importance of psychological preparation in sport, athletes who may themselves consider their mental health problem a ‘weakness’ are often reluctant to show any perceived kinks in their armour to opponents or teammates competing for positions. In addition, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff spoke of feeling a tremendous pressure throughout a spell of low mood to maintain his public image as the happy-go-lucky, inspirational cricket captain.
A couple of causes of emotional distress for athletes are more widely recognised in the industry: injuries and retirement. Approach any coach, physio or partner of an athlete enduring a long-term injury and you will be told that athletes often don’t know what to do with themselves when they’re not training or competing, and that a painful frustration can build when physically constrained from doing what they love. Kelly Holmes wrote in her autobiography "I just came to the end of my hope. I became depressed and cut myselfand got desperate for things to go right for once."
I suppose injuries and retirement are more readily recognised and accepted as causes of mental health problems in sport because they’re more straightforward. When Marcus Trescothick found himself sobbing uncontrollably in an Australian dressing room during the 2006 Ashes tour, confused as to why he felt so profoundly unhappy, there is no reason why others in the England set-up would have any more idea why he was experiencing this than Trescothick himself. Indeed, mental health problems are rarely straightforward, but the more professional sport recognises the need to encourage openness about such a common issue, the more it will be understood and de-stigmatised within the industry.
On Sunday, the Wasps rugby team will be sporting Mind logos as they work in partnership to raise the profile of sport and mental health. This is a great opportunity as, given the position sports stars hold as role models to so many, speaking out will help countless others to open up, seek help and get better.
You can also follow Fabio on Twitter @Fabzucci
Opening up about a mental health problem can be a difficult first step, but we'll be here to help when you're ready: call our Infoline on 0300 123 3393.
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